Apple essentially revolutionized the way smartphones are built when they chose to cover the first iPhone with glass instead of plastic. Now they're continuing to push the envelope by saying that sapphire, a more durable but costlier material, may replace glass covers not only in their future products but in most mobile products from here on.
As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the first ever sapphire display screens will be used for the soon-to-be-released iPhone 6. To manufacture the screens, Apple has opened a facility with materials manufacturer GT Advanced Technologies Inc. in Mesa, Arizona. This plant is expected to produce twice as much sapphire as Apple's more than 100 sapphire manufacturers scattered across the globe.
Technically, the sapphire being produced is of the synthetic kind. It is designed to mimic the qualities of real sapphire, one of the hardest minerals in the planet. Compared to glass, sapphire does not scratch or crack easily. On top of that, it boasts more resistance to chemical corrosion, high-level temperatures, and other extreme conditions.
Synthetic sapphire costs money to make. That is why the material is rarely used in common products. Apart from being featured in scratch-resistant covers for high-priced watches, synthetic sapphire is used normally for armored automobiles and aircraft windows.
In actuality, Apple has already incorporated synthetic sapphire in iPhones, although in limited capacity only. As a matter of fact, the iPhone's fingerprint reader and camera lens are covered by the material.
But now that they're considering using synthetic sapphire on a larger scale, potential benefits are already coming to mind. One is the lessening of cracked or damaged screens. According to SquareTrade (an extended service warranty provider for damaged screens), an estimated 11% of iPhone users have phones with broken screens. If synthetic sapphire takes off, we could witness a drastic decrease in damage screens in the foreseeable future.
Of course, Apple's foray into sapphire production is not without its drawbacks. It's not clear yet how fast the mobile giant can produce sapphire glass covers on a massive scale. If the production hits a snag at all, it could significantly affect the supply chain -- it might not make sapphire covers fast enough to keep up with the peak demand. And nobody knows for sure yet how long these materials last, especially in products designed for everyday use.
Then there's the difference in production cost. Sapphire screens are most costly to produce compared to Gorilla Glass, the one currently used in all existing iPhones today. It might be logical to say that the cost will likely transfer to the consumer -- in other words, buyers will probably pay more for future iPhone versions because of the sapphire screens.
On the other hand, if using sapphire means less broken screens, then Apple can save money, especially in warranty costs. However, it's hardly a guarantee the savings can make up for the added production costs.
All in all, going sapphire is a bit of a risky move for Apple. But it's really nothing new for a company known for its bold moves in the last few years. If anyone can pull this off, you can bet that it's Apple.
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